Time Transients

Can there be another city in the state, or even the country, that would organize a massive public New Year's party, invest in it heavily, and then scare the citizens out of attending?

It is New Year's Eve, and people are frightened. In the afternoon, the Albertsons at 16th Street and Camelback has none of its own brand of water left, and not much of the other, more expensive stuff. The media have been warning us of the impending Y2K disaster, the terrible things that could happen: The computers could crash, phones may not work, the lights could go out, the ATMs may cease to work, the stores may not be open, there could be terrorist action. We are advised to stockpile food and water, and it seems that we are doing so. The coverage is relentless; Y2K is the new chupacabras, the scary thing in the darkness that we love to talk about, that provides a creepy thrill that substantive issues cannot. When some explosives are stolen from a mining company, the drooling and cooing over what might happen intensifies.

The Phoenix Police Department announces that all its officers will be on call. The official reason for this is in case of power outages, inconveniences that officers might help with. But the individual cops I talk to tell a different story. They're not worried about equipment failure. They're worried about people, about millennium wing nuts who believe the apocalyptic hype.

Roger Clyne is worried. Formerly the front man of the Refreshments, he now fronts the Peacemakers, one of the bands booked to play in downtown Phoenix at Celebration 2000. He imagines playing on top of a pile of explosives, and knowing how far-fetched that is doesn't make it any easier. I fantasize that I might get to write the line, "'I was afraid this would happen,' croaked Roger Clyne, as I pulled him out of the rubble." Clyne also has to deal with the paranoia of the cops, who're afraid his fans might cause problems. "It's because we've played for Hells Angels," he tells me. "The cops think that makes us a security threat. I tried to tell them that the Hells Angels are more courteous to us than the guys from fraternities."

His band will play on the Festival Stage, which would have been better named the Tempe Stage, considering who the other bands are -- the Gas Giants, the Pistoleros, and the Gin Blossoms, who've reunited for this show. In the days leading up to the show, the local radio stations have relentlessly played the Gin Blossoms -- a defunct band -- but not the other, still happening bands.

Paranoia is catching. As I leave home for the New Year's celebrations, I'm excited and a little bit nervous.

In Phoenix, things happen with a type of metaphorical convenience that a fiction writer would dismiss as too improbable, too trite. Before heading downtown, I stop at a Circle K to get gas. As I'm filling up, a homeless guy walks toward me. I reach for my wallet, preparing for the familiar recitation. When he stops beside me, I see that he's probably in his 50s, his face purple and blistered, as though he's been badly sunburned, even though it hasn't been that hot in months.

"Hey," he says. "Will you go in there for me and get me some Twinkies and Coke?"

"Why don't you go in yourself?"

"They won't let me. . . . I'm just trying to get something in my stomach."

He puts a hand in his pocket. He's going to try to give me the money.

They come here to escape. That is the cliché, the stereotype, but it became a stereotype because it is true. They come here to escape, from pollution, a maimed marriage, a felony warrant, a failed business, poverty, unemployment, all the usual things we run away from. And this is the place they run to.

I did.

They come here knowing they will not be asked why. It is considered rude, an insensitive question, to ask someone what brought them here. If the question is asked, the most common answer is "The bus."

The place is called Phoenix. It is the sixth-largest municipality in the United States, a science-fiction cityscape of tangled freeways and broad, empty streets under a cruel sun. No individual stores on the streets, just strip malls. Many central neighborhoods don't have sidewalks because nobody walks anywhere unless they're homeless. A boom town in a "right-to-work" state, which means no right to job security or benefits, just a guaranteed minimum wage. A place where violence is out of control, and otherwise intelligent people think that only criminals should be armed.

In the collective mind of the rest of the country, this place doesn't exist. When people talk about Arizona, they're thinking about a history of heroic cowboys and bloodthirsty Indians, or, if they're politically correct revisionists, they're thinking about the murder and exploitation of the peaceful natives who were living in cosmic harmony until the white man showed up. Both views amount only to historical fiction. The whites were desperate workers or shiftless hustlers, killed mostly by disease, not bullets or arrows. In Tombstone, more hell-raisers shot themselves by accident than shot others in shoot-outs. The Indian tribes were mainly roving gangs of thugs who preyed upon each other.

In the collective mind, Arizona is wild, open country. In fact, it's grimly urban.

Some things haven't changed between history and the present. The state's popular identity is still based on a lie. New Age zombies flock here to play at being Native American, regarding the Indians as a race of benevolent mystics. The reality is that the reservations are organized ghettos.

The place is run by a network of aging good ol' boys, a cabal of wealthy rednecks who are making vast fortunes by eradicating the land.

I don't mean that the land is being "raped" or "exploited," two words favored by environmentalists. I mean it is vanishing, at a rate so fast it sometimes appears that the developers have invented a bomb that throws up ugly buildings wherever it explodes. Few of us object to this. Of those who do, there are fewer who think it can be stopped. The rest of us know with certainty that the desert is going to be taken from us, and we oppose its eradication not because we think we can win, but out of a secular sense of Christian duty, a sense that, however futile, it's the right thing to do. And, though it's painful to admit, some of us are excited by the sheer spectacle of the carnage.

Four years and two months ago. It is October 1995, close to midnight. The plane lands at Sky Harbor Airport and I disembark. The place I have come from is cold, and the desert night feels like a dark oven. I have come here alone, although there is someone with me -- a woman I have been married to for some years and will not be married to for very much longer.

We get in a cab. As we roll across the city, I look around, wondering when we will hit the urban area, see the bars and cafes and people walking around. We never do, of course. There isn't such an area. I have never seen a city like it, so utterly deserted on a Friday night.

We arrive at the hotel, an Embassy Suites. We booked a few weeks in advance, but the guy behind the desk has never heard of us. He says there is a convention in town, and so the hotel only has one room available. We take it. The room smells of ancient cigarette smoke, but we are too tired to care. We go to bed. As I fall asleep, I am glad to be there. I have no idea what Phoenix will be like, but I know it must be better than what I have left behind, the life I have run away from. In the air-conditioned darkness of that hotel room, I feel safe. I do not know it at the time, but I will not feel that way again.

We wake in the morning and lie in bed as we watch the news on TV. It appears that Phoenix is a place where nothing very bad happens. We go downstairs and complain about the room, and the manager gives us our money back.

That same day, we find an apartment in an overpriced complex near 19th Avenue and Camelback.

I have no job -- I work for myself -- and so no workplace I have to go to. But after a few hours in the apartment, I feel stir crazy. She and I have become hostile strangers. I don't know how to drive, and it will be some months yet before I learn well enough to pass a test. Most days, in the middle of the afternoon, I walk the mile or so to Christown Mall. As I walk, people yell at me from passing cars. I am usually the only person on the sidewalk, or walking in the gutter on streets where there is no sidewalk. But sometimes there are other people, and they always approach me, and they always say the same thing. It goes like this: "Hey, I ain't panhandling, it's just my car's a couple miles up the road and I ran out of gas and my wife and kid are in the car and I got to get them home and . . ."

I walk, and I don't see anything that tells me about the place. I wander around the mall, then sit in the food court and read or try to work. After a while, I walk back to the apartment, or else I call her from the mall and she drives there and picks me up.

I watch TV, and the anchors are smiling, and the news is about community and what a fine place this is to live. But there are things I don't see on TV.

A few weeks after I move into the apartment, I have some friends over. It's late in the evening, and we just sit around and talk. Then we decide to go out and eat. I'm tying my shoelaces when I hear the gunshots, so close by that the sound bounces around the complex, ricocheting off the walls like stray bullets. A few minutes later, we hear the sirens. "That means somebody got shot at," says Bobbi. "Otherwise, the cops wouldn't have come. There's too many people firing guns for the cops to come out all the time."

We go out, get in a car, head for a Denny's. On Camelback Road, we see the police car and the ambulance, the guy being loaded into it. We see the car, halfway onto the sidewalk, its rear windshield disintegrated. I look at it, and imagine the driver being shot at, losing control of the car. I think about how the impact of the bullets must have felt. I think about the guy who fired the gun, where he is, where he'll sleep tonight, what he'll eat for breakfast, who he'll have breakfast with, and never think of shooting.

The next morning, I watch the news on TV, waiting for the story. It never happens.

November 1996. A candlelight vigil in a lot behind a liquor store near 15th Avenue and Grand. The barrio is just south of the freeway, but the neighborhood on the north side is really a million miles away. The houses on the north are well-maintained, and the residents, though they have brown skin, tend to speak only English and have white-collar jobs. To the south, the houses are small and faded, the people often speak no English, and there are abundant liquor stores, pawnshops and motels that are little more than flophouses.

I'm talking to the family of a 16-year-old boy who was shot dead there by Phoenix police officers. The police report says the kid used a knife to cut a homeless guy and then lunged at the cops, who fired in self-defense. This is reported in the news. I talk to the homeless guy. He shows me the cut on his hand, but he tells me the kid didn't assault him, that he grabbed the knife by the blade and tried to pull it away from the kid, telling him he'd better give it up before the cops got any more pissed. He says he cut his own hand on the blade, let go of it and walked away. He says the cops stood in a semicircle and shot the kid repeatedly. Then one of the cops went to a cruiser, came back with a shotgun and fired it into the kid as he lay on the ground. This is not reported in the news.

February 1999. I'm in a hospital room in Scottsdale. The young woman in the bed has been shot in the chest and the back of the head by a man who abducted her from the store where she worked. Months later, when she is out of the hospital and recovering well, I turn on the TV and see a happy segment about how well she's doing. Here in the Valley, if you take a bullet in the head, you get better.

Phoenix is a boom town, but the citizens are getting screwed. Open a newspaper or turn on the TV and you will be told that the city is one huge, white suburb. The reality is that the heart of the city is a barrio, and that most of the money coming in never touches most of the people. When the boom gives way to the inevitable slump, the money will withdraw and go back to where it came from, taking with it its progeny, the money it gave birth to. I wonder how many of the citizens will even notice. It will be hard not to notice when the overpopulation and the paving-over are complete, and the water runs out.

The lie is seductive; who wouldn't want to live in the "Valley of the Sun," the happy valley whose residents all have fat salaries and perfect health and opulent houses, and spend their ample leisure time hanging out in elegant restaurants and glamorous resorts, a social scene full of local TV and radio personalities, politicians and sports stars? It's a pleasant place to read about.

But it doesn't exist for most of us. Phoenix is geographically closer to Mexico than to most of America, and it is closer socially as well. Phoenix is a great place to be doing well, and a terrible place to being doing badly. And, as a community, we are doing badly. When a town is booming, and unemployment is low, and nearly a quarter of the children live in poverty, we are doing badly.

In the cafes and bars of central Phoenix, it's hard to find a native of the city. Everybody is from someplace else, and nobody plans to stay. Everybody wants to make some money and then move on. While they're here, they don't really unpack their bags.

I get talking to a woman in a blues bar in central Phoenix. She's celebrating because she's just gotten a Ph.D. She's from Salem, Oregon, and came to the Valley to study for her doctorate at Arizona State University. She was bright and fun to talk to and she laughed a lot. She told me how much she hated Phoenix, because it was so white. I asked her where she'd been, where she hung out. She told me she just stayed close to ASU, and only hung out with the people she met there. "I made up my mind when I came here that I wasn't going to get involved with the place -- I was just going to do my work, get my doctorate and get out." Her story is a common one. There are so many who spend all of their work and leisure time with other affluent white people, with whom they complain that the Valley is too affluent and white. You want to see them? Buy a paper. Turn on the TV.

It's because of the incomers that the air is so bad. A hundred years ago, Arizona was a place people came to because of its air, hoping it would ease their respiratory ailments. Doc Holliday, dentist and killer, came because he had TB. He wouldn't be advised to come now. When people come here for a while, they bring their homes with them, bring plants that were never intended to live in the desert. So now we have the most violent allergic reactions to the air we breathe.

If there's any one thing that distinguishes Phoenix as a place, it's that the city is still becoming. There may be arguments as to what it's becoming, but no one disputes the becoming, no one can reasonably doubt that the place is still in the process of giving birth to itself, becoming whatever it will eventually be. Everything here is so stark, so obvious; everyone is on the make, everything is a hustle, everyone wants something from someone else.

This is true of every place, but in Phoenix it's so undisguised. The city lacks the sophistication to even attempt to conceal its hungers and lusts.

Convicted on six charges of fraud, Governor J. Fife Symington leaves office, blithely appeals his conviction and enrolls at an exclusive culinary school. No apology or explanation is offered.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio, one of the state's most popular politicians, is declared by Amnesty International to be a human rights violator, and the lawsuits brought by the families of people tortured and murdered in his custody cost millions in damages. His supporters declare that this is a worthwhile cost in the war against crime. But Arpaio has had no effect at all on the rate of crime or the rate of criminal recidivism. No apology or explanation is offered.

We are among the leaders of the country when it comes to shootings by the cops, and no apology or explanation is offered.

Our elected representatives use taxpayer money to fund the building of a baseball stadium, and to open new hotels downtown. The taxpayers are not allowed to vote on these matters. No apology or explanation is offered.

A crooked land developer once said that, in Phoenix, when you try to sell people out, they take the first offer.

Some of us rail against these things, call them outrageous. But to be surprised is to show a lack of knowledge of the history of this place. It has always been this way. Phoenix was founded as a hustle, a get-rich-quick scheme. Symington, Arpaio, Mecham, Keating -- none of them are anomalous. They are the proud bearers of the city's heritage. They are the sons of Jack Swilling.

His face looks up through the grain of the black-and-white photograph. His dark hair is long and tumbling, his mustache is bushy and reaches to his chin. His left hand holds a cowboy hat, his right holds what appears to be a gun slung over his shoulder. His eyes are large and surprised-looking, and he seems to be smirking a little. There is no date on the picture, so it is hard to guess how long it will be until he dies in Yuma Territorial Prison at the age of 48. From what is known of John William Swilling, it is a safe bet that he would have approved of the city he founded.

Jack Swilling was a drunk and an opium addict. He was also an Army scout, Army deserter, teamster, farmer, prospector, speculator, anything he thought would make him a fast buck. He was as corrupt as he was hardworking, and his imagination was exceeded only by his bad luck.

He was born in South Carolina in 1830. He was 37 when he found himself passing through the Valley. Few people lived here then -- most settlers considered it too hot, and opted for regions further north or south -- but the Army had established Fort McDowell two years earlier, as part of the war against the Apache.

Swilling could find a potential hustle anywhere, and a new one occurred to him when he saw the remains of the irrigation canals left behind by the Hohokam when they disappeared 400 years earlier. He headed to Wickenburg, a town based on mining, and got together enough of a bankroll to set up the Swilling Irrigating and Canal Company. He hired 16 employees and had them clean some of the canals. Then he started growing hay to sell to Fort McDowell.

That got things rolling. Other people came to the Valley on the make, and in 1870 there were 235 residents. A year later, the Valley separated from Yavapai County. John T. Alsap came down from Prescott to be our first mayor. Assorted groups of interested parties began fighting over the question of where to locate the county seat. There was bribery, fraud, intimidation, and in the end a townsite was prepared on Central and Washington.

Welcome to Phoenix, best-run city in the world.

No one knows who named the town "Phoenix." We do know that it wasn't Swilling. He busily carried on drinking and brawling, and ended up in prison for a robbery there's little evidence that he committed. In 1880, two years after his death, Phoenix had a population of 1,708.

Just like today, prisoners were used in chain gangs to clean the streets, which were made from beer bottles. Indians could only be in the city at night if they could prove they were employed by a resident white person.

By the turn of the century, the population stood at 5,544. The first cars arrived, and people suffering from TB were coming to the Valley in the hope of a cure, or at least a longer life. But they had to have money; in 1903, tents were banned from the city limits in an attempt to drive out poor people with TB. This resulted in tent cities being created in areas surrounding Phoenix.

The growth continued. By 1930, it was the largest city in the state, and the second largest in the Southwest, with a population of 48,118. It would take only another 10 years for it to reach 65,000. By 1955, it had more than doubled, to 156,000. Five years later, it had 439,170.

It is 1998, and I am driving south on Central Avenue, passing Dunlap. The man in my passenger seat is visiting Phoenix because he lived here in the late '60s and wants to see what it has turned into. "This," he says, looking out of the window, "was all desert. I mean, it wasn't even rural. It was just desert."

Then it is 1999, approaching the year's end, and a poll shows that nearly half of the city's residents would leave right now if they could.

What happened?

Over the past 20 years, the growth turned into an explosion of uncontrolled development. But that has happened with pretty much every city in the country, and people still want to live in them. What went wrong here?

The answer, appropriately enough, can be found in the opening scenes of a classic horror movie. Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, released 40 years ago, begins with a bird's-eye view of Phoenix. The city was instantly recognizable -- Camelback Mountain, the downtown skyline . . .

And it's still instantly recognizable. When you freeze the frame and look closely at it, it's hard to see any difference. Forty years of growth, and no change in the skyline? Nothing blocking the way? Where is all the development, new buildings, houses, offices?

Normally, development is preceded by planning. Not here. We've just thrown buildings up wherever we thought they were needed. We've built out, instead of up. To get from one place to another, instead of taking elevators and walking, you have to drive. And everything is farther than it seems. Think of a place you consider to be nearby, a handy place you go to every day. For a change, walk there instead of driving and see how long it takes you. What seems like it would be a stroll turns out to be a hike.

The growth, the maniacal expansion, has nothing to do with the development of community. In spite of the boom, the community has not grown wealthier. Instead, people have come here and grown wealthy. One of the factors that makes the Valley attractive to big business is the low wages. Poor neighborhoods are ignored, left to themselves, and the rest of us only hear about them when the constantly simmering violence reaches a boiling point and spills out into other areas.

As the new century begins, the Arizona Republic reports that six-shooters have been replaced with cell phones. While in keeping with the paper's new, openly boosterist image, this is simply not true. The reality is that violence has kept pace with development. It is characteristic of this city that, when a county supervisor supported the public bankrolling of Bank One Ballpark without letting the public vote on it, someone shot her in the ass.

On the way downtown for the New Year's Eve bash, I stop at a bar at Seventh Street and Virginia.

The old man's name is Peter. He was born in Phoenix, grew up here and has hardly been anywhere else. He's worked a lot of jobs, mainly construction.

We sit at the bar and he drinks his Budweiser and he talks. I ask him if he knows who Jack Swilling was. He doesn't. But he knows other pieces of the city's history. He talks about Winnie Ruth Judd, who was convicted in 1931 of killing two women, dismembering the bodies and shipping them to California in a trunk. "She was called the trunk murderess, all right? They put her in the loony bin, and she kept on escaping. I was a little boy, and when my dad wanted to scare me, he'd say, 'You better watch out or Winnie Ruth Judd's gonna come and get you.'"

What's he going to do for New Year's?

"Go to my neighbor's house."

What does he think of the party downtown?

"I don't know. I ain't going, that's for sure. So that's what I think about it," he says, laughing.

He doesn't like me much, but I like him, and would like to stay here and drink beer with him all night. But he's going to leave. If he invited me to go with him, I'd be tempted, but he doesn't. I press him for a comment, ask him what he thinks about all the changes he's seen, all the development, all the corruption.

"It doesn't matter," he says. "It doesn't fucking matter."

The ghost of Jack Swilling would bless the downtown area tonight. For about a square mile, every parking meter is covered with a hood, declaring it out of service. If you want to attend the party, you're going to have to park in a garage, and it's going to cost you. Prices range from $5 to $15. Somebody is going to make a tidy profit tonight -- though not as much as they'd have made if anybody actually showed up for the party.

It isn't really a party. It's more like a poorly attended state fair. Some streets, centering on Central and Third avenues, and running from Van Buren to Jefferson, have been sealed off, and are serving as the venue for live music. Trouble is, these streets aren't much busier right now than they would be at lunchtime on a weekday. Groups of people, mainly families and couples, are walking around, not talking to anyone outside their own group, and not paying much attention to the entertainment.

I try just talking to people in a sociable sort of way, and they think I'm weird for approaching them. Some party. I tell them I'm a reporter, and ask them about the party and their feelings about Phoenix. I get nothing that is worth typing.

A local TV station will describe the event as "amazing," and claim that 75,000 people showed up. Anyone who makes this claim is lying. More conservative estimates have put the figure at 15,000. I would not dispute that -- but it would cover all the people who attended, from five o'clock until midnight, arriving and leaving, because there absolutely could not have been more than a few thousand people there at any specific time.

I notice a line so long and intense that I wonder if someone is giving away free drugs. It turns out to be the line for the hot dog stand. The food is having a better night than the bands.

On the Phoenix City Hall Stage, Steppenwolf starts playing "Born to Be Wild." A couple of aging rockers dance and throw beer over each other. Few others seem to notice the band or the song. I would have expected even the kids who are present to do a double take and say, "Oh. So they do that song . . ." But there is no reaction. It's as if the song is coming from a jukebox in a bar rather than a live band.

Along the street, on the Festival Stage, the Peacemakers are doing better, which is still not great. That they are making any impact at all is entirely because of Roger Clyne. While Steppenwolf's members are performers who know their way around a stage, they have the air of a Vegas cabaret act, just playing by rote. Clyne, in contrast, is not only a performer of such brilliance that after only one song you understand why so many people make such a big deal out of him -- he also sings each song as though he means it. There are a few hundred people gathered around the stage. Down at the front, about a hundred are paying attention . . . but they're really paying attention, waving their hands in the air and screaming at every song. Everyone else just stands around and chats with their friends. There is a giant TV screen that shows Clyne in close-up, but occasionally focuses on the audience. A young woman sees herself on the screen and dances self-consciously. A fat guy with a baseball hat and goatee is jumping up and down with his eyes screwed shut, singing along ecstatically with Clyne. He doesn't realize he's on the screen, and the friends who're dancing alongside him laugh.

Clyne seems oblivious to the fact that this isn't a party and it isn't a show and most people don't care. He focuses on those who do care, and his performance can modestly be described as magnificent. Before playing his last song, he says, "Without being pretentious, I'd like to wish us all a less arrogant next hundred years." He closes with the Refreshments' hit "Here's to Life."

When the Gin Blossoms take the stage, they sound like a Gin Blossoms cover band. I decide I've had enough of Tempe for one night in downtown Phoenix, so I walk up to the Central Avenue Stage, where Waylon Jennings is playing.

Maybe it's because it's so far away from the other stages, and so requires a little bit of walking, but the people who've come up here really seem to want to hear the music. As Jennings sings, there is little conversation. The audience is rapt. I'm standing near the back of the throng, which means I'm on Monroe Street, looking north. I'm leaning against the barricade to my right, and I realize that (and I don't know whether this was a deliberate move on the part of the city) Newman's bar is right on the other side.

This is more than I can resist. When I enter Newman's, it's different than I've ever seen it. Well, the bar itself is the same. The last time I was here, my girlfriend was with me, and, as we sat at the bar, a guy unzipped himself and, in full view of everyone else, jacked himself off as he stared at her. No one seemed to be perturbed. The atmosphere tonight is as it always is, and if she were with me right now, the same thing might happen again.

But something is different.

About half of the patrons are not in the bar. They're outside in the street.

A few are panhandling, but the others are standing close to the barricade, with Waylon Jennings playing on the other side. And they're listening, very seriously. I try to talk to them, and they shush me. They want to listen.

I leave and drive west on Van Buren Street. After a few minutes, I get out of the car and walk south.

Midnight strikes. Nothing happens.

The computers work. The lights stay on. The stores that are open stay open, and the others open when they are supposed to. The ATMs dispense cash. The phones work, the lights stay on, there is no terrorist action.

Midnight strikes, the century turns. Nothing happens, except what happens every New Year. For a few minutes, it's like a war zone as guns are fired into the air. In the barrio, where I am standing, the gunfire is combined with Latin music. A young man and a young woman wrap their arms around each other and kiss deeply while their little girl looks on and laughs.

The city's party was a failure, but Peter was right. It didn't matter. The party happened anyway. It happened in houses and streets all over the city. What we heard from the media, as usual, was fiction. We were told the world was going to end, and it scared us, but it didn't happen. Now we're told the city's party was a success, and we know that didn't happen, either. But no matter. The lies, and the fear caused by the lies, didn't spoil the fun. People met with their friends, put their arms around each other and kissed while their children laughed. Nothing managed to spoil it, even here, even now. Even in Phoenix.

Barry Graham lives in Phoenix and is a former New Times staff writer. His latest book, The Cactus Jungle: Reports From Southwestern Babylon, will be published in March. E-mail him at BGraham33@hotmail.com


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >